When I try to explain Mardi Gras to my former coworkers back at the cab company on the Jersey Shore, I end up comparing it to crowded and volatile summer weekends in the old Seaside Heights NJ. Memorial day weekend, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Christmas for a week or so. That still doesn’t sum up the festivities. There’s more of a Biblical scale to it. Like some old Testament city twerking it’s ass in a holy god’s face. Pilgrims flocking to worship a bronze bull, drinking, nudity, sodomy and all things that make for a great party. Thousands of years from now, Earth historians will write about New Orleans and get hard ons while doing so.
The only other city that might comprehend the influx of religious pilgrims is Mecca during the high holidays. There the analogy ends. It’s the one time we can look at all other tourist cities and say you Anita shit. New York, your Thanksgiving Day Parade is nothing more than corporate billboards that people die of hypothermia to look at and nothing gets thrown to them in return. I think this year we had a float rider toss an empty quarter keg off of a float. If you were to ask a fraternity to create a religious holiday, it would be just like Mardi Gras.
In preparation for the annual festival, the locals eagerly polish their goods, clean up the dusty manure strewn village, and open their arms to all who have come to help them worship their god. Temples illumined with fire and neon bacons the reveler to come and worship at this temple or that one. $20 cover charge. Worship the female form, worship the male form, worship the male dressed as a female form. Only in the French Quarter do you think you know some one and then they up and change gender on you. Sorry if I still call you “Dude.” Everyone in the service industries are eager also, this is the last big money maker before summer sun brings drought and all of the locals are forced back to producing goat porn for the internet. We are a modest people. Smelly beggars are sporting toothless grins, street performers are actually getting out early and there is work to be had.
Even an old fart like me can find regular work. In the mornings I do light maintenance and painting at a small five star hotel, evenings washing dishes at a Sicilian restaurant and regular days painting artwork on the walls of a bar. All on my block. I so love my life right now. I haven’t been writing much lately about my life in the French Quarter because I have been too busy living it. The real French Quarter. The ones that the visiting pilgrims will never see. I’ll just give you a brief run down of how my week has went.
I was the one who got to personally meet the National Idiot of the day while working at the hotel one morning. A tractor trailer driver came down Bourbon Street and tried unsuccessfully to make a right turn on Toulouse Street. The only thing that stood in his way of success was the second floor balcony to the building that the hotel leases next to itself. The driver’s side corner of his inter model container smashed into the corner of the old balcony above the former bistro. I was in the alley between the two buildings washing a paint brush when I heard the crash and the sound of broken pieces of wrought iron and wood trim shower down upon the sidewalk below. Not good I thought.
As I exited the alley door, I was about 10 feet from the front of a blue cab driven by a very shook up truck driver. He was already in the process of backing up rapidly. Very foolish thing to do. The entire balcony could have been torn off of the building. Above me. With his head twisting between mirrors as he backed up, one eye on the lucky dog guy setting up inches format his right rear axle, and the upper left corner of his trailer he pretended not to notice the tiny bits of black wrought iron bouncing off of the hood of his truck or the skinny irate white dude in painter’s pants screaming “YO DUDE! Stop the mutha fucking truck now. We’re calling the cops.” He backed up, corrected his turn and proceeded to continue down Toulouse Street. As I jogged along side of the cab, I pointed out to the driver’s attention that he had inadvertently destroyed a historic building in his travels. “Yea, yea! I know...I...I can’t stop in the street, let me find a place to park” he yelled. Oh hell no I said. A coworker Shane at the Sicilian restaurant that I work at recalls seeing me about 11:30 AM running down Toulouse Street yelling “Stop the Truck MFR.!” Yea, that was Styles.
Fortunately the traffic was a little heavy that morning, I was barely able to keep up with him with my flat footed asthmatic jog. The driver blew through the stop sign on Royal Street but got snagged in traffic at Chartres. Out of breath I chest up to the driver side door. The driver pulls on his air horn in order to expedite traffic. I huff as I calmly but firmly warn. “Man, don’t run. We called the cops, we have your tag number.” As a former commercial driver and dispatcher myself, I was trying to reason with him. He might get leniency with a block or two for leaving the scene of an accident, but not all the way back to the depot.
The driver totally did not look at me this time. I stood in front of his vehicle and wrote down the front plate number and company name on my left hand with a Sharpie marker. I turned to see a NOPD cop on Chatres. I point to the blue cab of the truck 30 feet from him. “Officer, this driver just demolished the balcony of our building and drove off.” The cop casually looked up and asked “Did you call it in?” “Yea, my office did about three minutes ago.” “Oh, ok then.” The NOPD walked away from us. He was about 30 feet from the driver. The cop went one way and the truck started to roll the other. Traffic was moving. Do I want to try and reason with NOPD or try to stop an 80,000 pound truck with my bare hands. I stood a better chance with the truck I thought. A couple of hours at work had just turned into a cheesy action movie where they could only afford one vehicle for a chase scene.
The rear of the trailer was grinning at me as it was heading towards Decatur Street. Never in one day have I ever used the word “mother-fucker” so many times. I was pissed. I jogged up Toulouse as the truck waited at the light. He was trying to force a right on red. I reached the back of his trailer as he started a slow roll. At first I thought how I could reach the passenger side hand rails and running boards. Then it dawned on me that this guy is in such a flight mode that I could easily end up clinging to the side of his truck at 70 MPH on I-10. Besides, who the hell am I? Indiana Jones? Fuck that, I’m a house painter. I had his FRONT tag number off of the cab. At the time of the crash, patrons at Molly’s ran out and wrote down the license plate number from the trailer. I had a good description of the driver and company name.
Back at the circa 1794 hotel a group had gathered, hotel staff, patrons and staff from the two bars across the street. Molly’s and The Dive Bar. Being a very pleasant day, the doors and windows were all open so everyone inside of the bars were treated to a great floor show. Many ran out and took cell phone pics of his back license plate as he pulled away. We waited for NOPD to show up. The ones we called, not the ones that were actually there. I finally got a good look at the balcony placed under my care. Shit. The pole closest to Bourbon Street was at a 45 degree angle, pulled away at the top, severed 3/4 of the way trough at side walk level. Gallons of rusty water bled from the wound at the bottom. Water had filled that iron pipe for probably over a century, the bottom just tore. Authentic, historic pieces of cast iron artwork strewn the street. The entire balcony had shifted and would need to be torn down and replaced because an amateur driver failed to heed a no truck zone.
The crowd Toulouse shouted “Be careful” as I inched out onto the balcony to inspect the damage. Soon I was in the corner above the missing poll jumping up and down with a full 150 pounds of force. Not even a bounce, they knew how to build them back then. It saddened me to see so much of the iron work destroyed. What didn’t shatter in the accident was twisted and wracked so bad it probably can’t be salvaged. I call first dibs on the discarded. I’m redecorating. The moped cops were cool as hell with us. The one who took my statement shook his head in disbelief. They had called the building inspectors office and this hot little blond shows up to inspect the damage. I just pass on the info to my boss, leave me out of the loop please and thank you.
My first responsibility was to make sure the structure area was safe, a trip to the hardware store on Rampart for caution tape (which by the way you should always have on hand in the Quarter) I then went about trying to locate pole jacks for a 14 foot balcony. In this part of town there are hundreds. They are used during Mardi Gras to provide extra support underneath the crowded historic balconies. As if the narrow, crowded, pothole, urine, vomit, feces and bum strewed sidewalks are not enough to rapidly negotiate, we now add steel pipe as a slalom course. I could have a dozen by that night from most any other businesses on Bourbon Street any other time of the year, but not now. Not during Mardi Gras.
The following morning my Toulouse Street cohort “Chicken Sam” helped me with providing support for the corner of the damaged pole. Pressurized 4x4 lumber and blocks are probably stronger than what had been there for the past 25 years. Sam is best described as an absolute mechanical and philosophical genius with a thin shiny coat of sleaze. The 16 foot piece of lumber had to be cut down, so I break out the circular saw. Sam said to put it away as he returned from his van revving up a chain saw on a very crowded French Quarter street. I chuckled as the blades wired a foot away from a very startled family and some kid’s balloon hat. Epic Zombie tourist visual. The damaged metal pole we were able to just twist and snap off. The balcony was off limits. The city building inspector insisted that I create a substantial barricade to the balcony. I did. Did I mention that the building inspector was hot?
My plan for that day was to do a few hours at the hotel in the morning, get some sleep that afternoon and go to my night job in the kitchen. It was turning into almost being late for job number two. I like my job at the restaurant. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked in the industry. New things to learn and experience. I like being the 50 year old dude in the apron bussing tables. Never thought I would say that, but the Quarter has shown me great secrets about happiness. The second wind came in handy for a very busy night flinging Sicilian slices at drunk revelers. A Jersey boy could handle this job, I already know pizza and dozen curse words in Italian.
About 4 am things slowed down enough to feel caught up and take a smoke break. I actually have a boss who will ask me to stop working and go on a smoke break with him. We hear of a dude passed out in front of our alley door so we go to investigate. I grab the hose just as reflex and my employer says not yet. Good thing. I knelt down to roust him, which can be risky at times. They can come up swinging, pull a weapon or god forbid projectile vomit on you. I looked at his face and saw blood trickling from above his right eye, just on the eye brow. At first look under the gas light it looked like a small hole. Damn it, don’t let it be a gun shot. Unlike in the movies, when someone gets shot in the head with a small caliber round, there isn’t the dramatic and pornographic display of blood and brains. A fatal shot would produce very little blood. His crossed eyes open.
“Sir, are you ok? Do you need us to call an ambulance for you?”
“no, no ambulances, just let me lie here....”
“We can’t do that sir. If you do not get up and walk away, we will have to call 911 for you.”
“No 911111, just let me sleep....”
“We can’t let you. Get up and walk away or we make the call.”
I was hoping he would drag himself up and stagger away. It looked like he was a “local” train hopper who was in town to scam tourists. He probably had a good day and spent it all on smack and cheap booze. My guess is he fell and face planted against a building. I kept talking to him while waiting for the ambulance to push it’s way through the very dense crowd. Lights and sirens were about 2 blocks away, which in this crowd meant about 8 minutes.